Empty houses: Not an issue, mayors say

Owners already pay property taxes and don't use services, but prof says surcharge should be applied

Anecdotal stories of unoccupied homes and condos may be common in Metro Vancouver but Tri-City mayors said they don't believe the issue is widespread in their communities.

And even if vacant properties are more common than they believe, the mayors do not necessarily see it as a problem — and note that there is little they could do about it anyways.

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"There is the odd house that people have invested in and are not living in," said Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore. "We would be overstepping our boundaries as local government if we try and regulate that."


Currently, there is no data tracking the prevalence of empty homes and Moore said any new regulations aimed at reducing the number of vacant properties would have to come from the provincial government. If cities approached the issue individually, he added, it could create imbalances in the real estate market.

Residents should also be cautious when trying to predict who owns a vacant property and why they are leaving the home unoccupied, he added.

Moore said he recently met the owners of an empty house on his street who told him they live in Richmond and are waiting for their daughter to finish school before making the move to PoCo.

"I think there are a lot of stories," he said, "and I don't think it would be good if anybody tried to predict why we have vacant homes."

But a real estate economist at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business is proposing tracking and taxing unoccupied homes across the region.

Thomas Davidoff is advocating a 1.5% surcharge on vacant properties, funds he said could be collected and redistributed to declared residents in the form of equal lump sum payments.

"The goal is to support those living in parts of the province that have seen skyrocketing real estate prices while also making our local markets less attractive to investors who wish to avoid taxation or park cash," Davidoff told The Tri-City News.


The proposal has gotten traction in the city of Vancouver, where empty investment properties are believed to be much more common, particularly in the city's west-side neighbourhoods. If Davidoff's surcharge were applied, he said it would raise $90 million in Vancouver alone.

But Tri-City mayors are skeptical that such a tax would work in their communities.

"The complaint with empty homes is they empty out the community [and] neighbourhoods," said Port Moody Mayor Mike Clay. "If that's true, simply taxing the owner won't help that."

"We already have a tax on vacant homes. It is called property taxes. Vacant homes that don't use any services still pay the same tax." Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart

He added: "I'm sure the tax would have to be very large to actually stop someone who had enough money to buy a $1-million-plus home and leave it empty from doing so."

His Coquitlam counterpart, Richard Stewart, said there is a bright spot to having empty homes. Each owner pays the same municipal property taxes regardless of whether they use city services or not, meaning owner of vacant properties offset the costs for others.

As long as the property is being properly maintained, Stewart said he did not see an issue.

"We already have a tax on vacant homes," he said. "It is called property taxes. Vacant homes that don't use any services still pay the same tax."


Cities do not have the power to tax empty homes and penalize residents for leaving their properties vacant, he said, adding that the real issue people are concerned about is affordability.

But freeing up vacant homes for the rental market would not solve the cost of living issues in Metro Vancouver, Stewart told The Tri-City News, noting only increased supply can do that.

"There is no quick solution," he said. "Housing affordability, as with the affordability of anything, relates to supply and demand."

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